Gallo, Julio Robert

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Gallo, Julio Robert

(b. 2 1 March 1910 in Oakland, California; d. 2 May 1993 near Tracy, California), vintner and wine industrialist who, together with his brother Ernest, founded the Gallo wine empire, changing Americans’ drinking habits and revolutionizing the field of wine making.

Gallo was one of three children of Guiseppe (“Joseph”) Gallo, a wine maker, and Assunta (“Susie”) Bianca, a homemaker. His parents immigrated to the United States from the Piedmont region of Italy, bringing their families’ wine-making traditions with them. The Gallos lived in many towns in California, from Hartford to Livermore to Escalon, eventually settling in Modesto in 1922. After various unsuccessful business ventures, the Gallos, along with Julio’s uncle, Mike, founded the Gallo Wine Company in 1906, laying the foundation for what would become one of the largest wine empires in the United States. Julio spent his formative years learning the wine-making business from the ground up. He attended Modesto High School from 1925 to 1929 but spent the bulk of his time in the vineyards. Prohibition significantly affected the winery’s sales, sending Julio’s father into a depression that culminated with a murder-suicide when Joe Gallo shot his wife and then himself in 1933. Julio and his older brother, Ernest, were named guardians to their younger brother, Joseph. Julio married Aileen Lowe on 8 May 1933; they had three children: Robert, Susann, and Phillip.

After their parents’ deaths, the Gallo brothers decided to capitalize upon the business their father had started. They were granted their first winery permit on 22 September 1933. Julio was in charge of wine making and overseeing the vineyards, and Ernest was in charge of marketing and sales. Starting with only $5,900 between them, the brothers worked incessantly. They convinced banks to loan them money, growers to cede them grapes on credit, and transporters that they would get paid after the winery sold its product. Through the combination of Julio’s amiable personality and Ernest’s business instincts, their winery slowly became the largest in California.

Their original product was modestly priced dessert wines. Realizing that the average American in the 1930s and 1940s preferred beer to wine, they hired advertising agencies to convince the public that wine was for general consumption, not just for special occasions. Market research helped by showing target areas and audiences. In order to appeal to a broad range of tastes, the winery ultimately produced many different kinds of wines, including sherry, port, Chablis, and Burgundy—overall a total of sixteen brands. By the 1990s, Gallo had captured almost one-third of the entire American wine market.

There were setbacks over the years. Not all of their releases were received well, and because of the limited number of top personnel at the winery, Julio worked seven days a week. The stress of entrepreneurship eventually took its toll: in 1941, Julio suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for four months, and he had a relapse in 1942. In 1958 his son Phillip took his own life. Julio and his wife sought solace in each other, their two remaining children, and numerous grandchildren.

The Gallos had perhaps their biggest marketing success in the 1950s when they released Thunderbird. This combination of lower-grade grapes with either pear or apple juice appealed to many for both its sweet taste and inexpensive price. It was so successful that the winery followed with Ripple in 1960 and later introduced Night Train Express. These labels sold well but stigmatized the Gallo winery for years as “street wine” producers. To counteract that image, the Gallos introduced new champagne lines—Eden Roc, André, and Tott’s—and, in 1967, their Boone’s Farm wine label. But the lower-end image haunted them, so the winery launched its Hearty Burgundy and Chablis products, which were promoted as affordable table wines and packaged in volumes up to a gallon. In the late 1970s, another Gallo “jug wine,” the Carlo Rossi brand, was quite successful, and in 1984, Bartles and Jaymes wine coolers (bottled like beer, in a six-pack) were hugely popular. Their battle with image continued, however, until 1991 when the winery released Estate Chardonnay and effectively moved into the upscale varietal grape market.

The 1970s were a time of strife for the Gallos as César Chávez and the United Farm Workers brought suit and a great deal of media attention to the plight of migrant laborers. The suit was settled through negotiations, a boycott of grapes and Gallo wine ended, and the Gallos’ grape pickers joined the Teamsters; Julio and Ernest were both firm believers in unions. The Gallos also established a growers relations department, which focused on methods of improving grape production. These changes, combined with the winery’s insistence that its growers keep up to date with viticultural developments, placed it at the forefront of the industry. The Gallos were also heralded for other changes: they developed a colored bottle they called “Flavor-guard,” which blocked ultraviolet rays and thereby extended the shelf life of a wine (1957); they used modern advertising, thereby making wine a national beverage; they manufactured their own glass, thereby cutting costs (the Gallo Glass Company was founded in 1958); they pioneered new training methods and point-of-sale displays; and they introduced stainless steel wine-making vats and computers for wine blending. Julio played a key role in all of these developments. His brother Ernest said, “More than any man alive, Julio was responsible for upgrading the quality-control and sanitary practices of the California wine industry.” His efforts were also noted by Time magazine, which named Julio and Ernest “Kings of Wine” in its November 1972 cover story, and by the American Society of Enologists, which awarded Julio its Merit Award in 1975.

In 1986 Ernest and Julio filed a trademark infringement suit against their brother Joseph. Joseph, a cheese maker, was using the Gallo name on his product. He countersued the same year. After many years and bitter feuds, Joseph was ordered by the court to cease using the name Gallo. This case effectively estranged Joseph from his brothers.

Julio spent the last years of his life at the Gallo of Sonoma winery attempting to create an even more upscale brand of wine, and in this pursuit he also made significant financial contributions to the viticulture and enology departments at Fresno State University and the University of California at Davis. He died from a cervical spine fracture caused by a car accident and was buried in the Saint Stanislaus Cemetery in Modesto, California.

To Julio Gallo, the most important thing was the land. He spent years of his life cultivating the soil, plucking grapes by hand, and studying growing times to make the best wine possible. His technological contributions to the field enabled other vintners to improve all aspects of their product. As it says on his tombstone, Gallo was first and foremost a “Winemaker Who Loved The Land.”

Julio and Ernest Gallo collaborated with Bruce B. Henderson on Ernest and Julio: Our Story (1994), presenting every aspect of their lives from their grandparents’ immigration to America up to and including Julio’s death (included as a postscript). Ellen Hawkes wrote Blood and Wine: The Unauthorized Story of the Gallo Wine Empire (1993) with the intention of exposing the hypocrisy of the lawsuit between the brothers. She contends that Joseph was railroaded into giving up his share of the family fortune, and that Ernest and Julio rewrote history to hinder Joseph from sharing any of the Gallo fame. An obituary is in the New York Times (4 May 1993).

Sharon L. Decker